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Guilderland Archives The Altamont Enterprise, December 18, 2008
Healing the walking wounded
By Philippa Stasiuk
ALTAMONT Kal-Joe Szabo is the new director for Father Peter Young’s fledgling rehab program for veterans at the facility on Berne-Altamont Road; he is trying to give an example of why the needs of military vets from the Gulf Wars are unique.
“They need to start over again.”
“They need to get themselves independent.”
“They need to rid themselves of drugs and alcohol.”
All these are true, but Szabo felt none of them got to the heart of the matter. Finally, he said, “They were in Desert Storm and they were destroying ordnance and the weapons had chemical agent inside but they didn’t know that and 90 percent of that unit had kidney failure.”
In July, the state’s Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services notified Young that his proposal to start a new program helping rehabilitate veterans from the Gulf Wars had been accepted. It is one of four programs called “100 Beds for Veterans,” an OASAS-sponsored initiative to increase treatment services for veterans in upstate New York.
“Veterans came to me and they said they had a need,” said Young.
A Catholic priest and the chief executive officer of Peter Young Housing, Industries and Treatment, Young has been leading programs in addiction recovery for almost half a century. Through years of listening to those in need, he has distilled his mission to a crystal clear mantra: “Find programs applicable to their recovery.”
Although the new veterans program in Altamont is the third of Young’s upstate programs to focus on the addiction issues of veterans (the others are in Menands and Syracuse), it is the first to specifically concentrate on the needs of those who served in the 1991 Gulf War and the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Szabo describes the veterans that the program will be treating as “casualties of war,” and said that, as in the case with Young’s approach to treatment, the program will be dealing with the recovery of the whole person.
For up to six months, 25 male or female veterans will be given both psychological and medical treatment, along with 24-hour nursing care. Szabo expects to treat not only cases of post-traumatic stress disorder but traumatic brain injuries, shrapnel-related injuries, missing limbs, and the effects of concussions.
When describing the goals of the psychological component of the program, Young uses the term “resocialization” and Szabo says “reintegration,” but their meaning is similar. According to Szabo, the veterans “may not have a place to live and their spouse may have abandoned them. They need to start over again and they need to get themselves independent.”
Despite not yet having a salary, Szabo is busy making final preparations for the program, which he hopes will commence in two months. He has made a short list of potential staff and identified the training the future employees will need.
One of the things Szabo is looking for on the résumés of potential staff is previous experience in the military. “Veterans,” he said, “look to the staff as an example of hope.” He expects the staff to help him attain his biggest goal for the veterans, which is “to get past their state of isolation and psychological pain.”
Szabo has known plenty of both. He returned from Vietnam after being deployed four times in two years to find the friends he had grown up with in Queens, N.Y., were hostile to soldiers. “I only let other veterans know I was a veteran. You were not well received if the general folks knew you were a vet. There was no sense of patriotism.”
As a former heroin addict, Szabo knows about addiction. He also knows the maneuvering some veterans have to do to get medical and disability benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs. His combat-related hearing loss was only acknowledged as a legitimate and paid disability by the VA 41 years after his service ended in 1966. Szabo started receiving benefits after contacting Disabled American Veterans, which agreed to represent him. They successfully argued his case with the VA.
Both Szabo and Young think that the veterans of the wars in the Middle East have advantages over the veterans of the Vietnam War. Young says that with the increased benefits being given to soldiers from the VA, there is less anger and self-destruction.
Understanding what created the self-destructive behaviors in soldiers the program is trying to cure has evolved. According to the Peter Young website, in 2005, the most important credential a veteran needed when being considered for treatment was an honorable discharge from the military, which was specified as a requirement by the VA.
By contrast, the OASAS request for proposal for “100 Beds” specifies that the group of vets to be treated could include those whose “inability to cope with war trauma manifested directly in behaviors that resulted in a dishonorable discharge....”
Although the governor has proposed that the 2009 budget for OASAS be cut by $77 million dollars, the new veterans program in Altamont will not be affected, according to Dianne Henk, a spokesperson for OASAS. She said that the project is still in the planning stages with the next step being to hire an architect to conduct a feasibility study of the Berne-Altamont Road site.
“It’s a lengthy process but it’s in the works,” she said.